The Separation of Church and Christ

My first breakup with church was entirely out of my control. I was twelve years old and furious with my parents for taking me away from the place that had housed my faith all my young life.

But my father felt called to step out that year—like Abraham, “not knowing where he was going”—and I was forced along for the ride. The craziest thing happened when the stability of my Sunday morning routine was ripped away from me… My faith began to grow. Beyond the four walls that once contained it. Outside the box I had crafted to carry it safe and close.

I learned that year (and in the many years to follow) that God was much bigger than the house man had built for Him. Perhaps that is why my newsfeed has been causing me so much frustration lately.

A meme tells me not to claim I would go to prison for a faith I “won’t even go to church for.”

A misguided evangelist assures me that my children won’t develop a desire to follow Jesus if I fail to take them to church on Sunday mornings.

Yet another meme informs me that if I think I don’t need church because I can study the Bible on my own, I clearly haven’t been studying the Bible.

You know, maybe I am having a hard time with Bible study because I seem to have missed the verse that says, “Faith without church is dead.”

I am not opposed to church by any means. Many people benefit from the long-held tradition of Sunday morning worship. I have been one of those people throughout several seasons of my life. My opinion is that, if church satisfies your soul—if you find that God feels present in a sanctuary filled with fellow worshipers—by all means, go to church. But if you find yourself on Sunday mornings wondering why you’re even sitting in that pew, craving a Bible and a journal and the silence of your living room… Well, maybe it’s time to move on.

Maybe it’s time to break up with church and fall in love with Jesus instead.

I know, I know. Sacrilege.

Because when it comes to breaking up with church, the church would like you to believe that the problem is you. You’re not trying hard enough to connect. There is a flaw in your faith. If a wrong has been committed, it’s your fault.

But ultimately, it’s like any breakup. Maybe one person carries more blame than the other, but the simple fact is that the two of you just aren’t right for each other. You need no other reason to walk away.

Church has been sacred to me in the past but, looking back, I can see it was also a danger to me at twelve years old when I considered that silly building to be the end-all-be-all of my faith. I fell apart that year, but by the grace of God, my faith came back stronger than before.

Because despite what I believed as a child, my faith was not defined by where I sat on a Sunday morning. God was not confined to the sanctuary of my childhood.

They’re separate. Christ and the church. And while the hope is that the church provides some kind of accurate reflection of Christ, the fact is that a congregation composed of flawed human beings often falls short of that goal. That’s why it pains me to see the church declare that they are the pathway to faith. I’ve seen the hurt the church has inflicted on some of its members. I’ve watched disillusioned believers try to reconcile the Christ preached from the pulpit with the man doing the preaching, knowing that his actions and his words don’t quite align.

What I’ve seen online these last few weeks appears to be a desperate attempt by the church to stay relevant. Only, it’s all merely words—a clamor of voices insisting the church still has relevance, trying to convince me that my faith will not survive apart from it.

But what if I truly believed that? Would I run back to church, seeking solace within the walls that lately have provided no comfort for me? Or would I let my faith quietly slip away, knowing it was made for churches and could not serve me outside of it?

That’s the message you’re portraying, church, with these memes insisting that you alone know the way to God’s heart.

It is important to leave the seekers that distinction. Let them not confuse a church that would wound them with a God who would take their wounds upon Himself. If a church is to push them away, let them not feel that God has also rejected them. Let us not act as though the temple veil has not been torn asunder, giving all people access to the God who resides within.

What I have gathered from that Bible I may or may not be able to interpret on my own is that we are called to community. We are called to fellowship. We are called to love and minister to the least among us.

I have yet to find the part that says we called to a building. Called to Sunday morning schedules or pastors who sit upon pedestals. Called to cling so tightly to tradition that we would chain and choke our faith just to keep things as they have been.

You may need church to help you grow. You may be fortunate enough to have found a corporate place of worship that makes your faith come alive. But if you ever feel that your faith is outgrowing the walls of that sanctuary… set it free. Let it grow. Search for God in the temple of the great wide world He created.

And don’t ever let anyone convince you that God only speaks from a pulpit.

“Remind me that you never asked us
to build a building,
only to build a kingdom…
Let me change the place I worship
to the temple you’ve provided,
all around me in my everyday life.”

-Steven James (A Heart Exposed)

Even When God Disappoints…

“God won’t disappoint you.”

“God never lets us down.”

I read those two statements in the same morning and bristled both times. Maybe it makes me a bad believer, but I question the truth of those words.

God won’t disappoint me? God will never let me down?

If you’ve spent any time in church, you’ve likely heard that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” While that is true—biblical even—I can’t help but wonder when and where the church adopted the counterpoint to that statement: “Every hardship is from the devil.”

Because that’s the assumption, isn’t it? Blame satan, sin, spiritual warfare… but don’t blame God for your heartache.

The question I wrestle with today is how? How can one believe in a loving God who holds all things in His hands, while also believing that He allows things to slip through His fingers? Is God in control? Or does satan sometimes blindside Him?

Whoops. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Um, it’s satan’s fault. Sorry.”

I have a hard time believing that could be true. I can’t imagine that the God who so carefully crafted the universe could be so careless with something so dear to my heart. It doesn’t line up with what I know to be true of Him.

So as I stand here resting my head against the door He briefly opened and then so suddenly slammed in my face, I find myself disappointed (to put it mildly). Not in satan, sin, or spiritual warfare, but in the God who elected that I should walk this road and bear this burden.

Because while it may be that God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him, that doesn’t mean that the process isn’t painful. That doesn’t mean I will never feel disappointed or let down. That doesn’t mean I won’t be devastated by a sudden turn of events.

That’s not how life works. That’s not how the Author of Life operates. He doesn’t shelter us from the storms of life; He simply weathers them with us.

The word God burdened my heart with for this coming year is Expectant. I have to admit it seems a strange follow-up to my year of Be in which I dismantled all of my expectations. It feels like a completely backward way of thinking. It feels like a recipe for disappointment.

I am trying to be Expectant of good things—to believe that this year will bring forth beauty from ashes. To look to the future with hopeful anticipation, trusting God to deliver good things, while not letting my dreams take too specific a shape.

So often, God’s will does not align with my own, and when I expect it to, I find myself disappointed.

This isn’t what I wanted, even if God believes it’s what I needed. Even if He ultimately knows best.

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve walked this rocky road of disappointment and doubt. It’s hard to believe in the goodness of God when dealing with what one can only perceive as senseless heartache. So to assign God the reputation of never letting us down… Well, that just makes for a lot of disgruntled believers.

Because life is full of disappointments. Sometimes God opens doors only to close them again. Sometimes He grants us opportunities that aren’t everything we hoped they would be. And sometimes, as disappointing as it sounds, His good and perfect gifts are forged in hardship.

But even in the disappointment

I will continue to Expect beauty from these ashes. Because even in the disappointment, I trust that God’s heart toward me is good. I believe His will for me is pure.

And that, to me, is better than any misguided promise that life with Him will be easy.

Great Expectations and the Decay of Happiness

“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”

That phrase, which I read in John Mark Comer’s Garden City (although he accredits it to sociologists Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarim from their book Engineering Happiness), has been rolling around in my mind for a day now.

“Happiness equals reality minus expectations.”

Huh.

When Levi and I were going through pre-marital counseling, there was a whole chapter on expectations. Our homework was to write down twenty expectations we had for our marriage in addition to ten expectations we imagined each other to have. We were then meant to share, compare, and otherwise work through our delusions.

I suppose the point of the exercise was to save us from future unhappiness (see happiness equation above), but concocting that many expectations for the sake of comparison felt like a sure way to guarantee my unhappiness in the moment. I managed to come up with a whole eight expectations before I called it quits.

I know it’s still early, but despite flunking marriage counseling, we are blissfully, deliriously happy. I’ve either kept my expectations simple, or I learned to shape them around the person I know Levi to be rather than a “perfect” ideal I might conjure. (Because let’s face it, in a perfect world, my husband would cook and clean and somehow still manage to make enough money that I’m not holding my breath when I tally up our expenses each month.)

But it works. My expectations do not outweigh my reality. I’m truly happy with the simple life we’ve chosen to pursue.

When I look at the world around me, it is obvious that most people cannot say the same. There is an epidemic of discontent sweeping through the nation. Despite the overwhelming amount of privilege to be found in America, we are desperately grasping for more.

And I wonder if these people will be happy when they “arrive” or if their expectations will have left them empty. Will they ever be content with enough when there is always more to be had for the taking?

Would I be happy just to sell a novel if I’m fantasizing about it landing on the New York Times Bestseller List? Would I be delighted by a simple review from a reader if I was hoping to be critically acclaimed?

It’s worth pondering. Is it possible that our great expectations are sabotaging our ability to be happy?

There is a lot of tension in America right now, everyone constantly refreshing their phones to see if the votes have been counted. The next four years of political decisions hinge on the outcome… but your happiness doesn’t have to.

People will tell me that is a privileged point of view. But is it? Is it a privilege to be happy despite the state of the political world or is it simply a choice? A choice to choose hope instead of despair. A choice to choose love over hate.

I am a firm believer that your mindset shapes your reality. That’s why the placebo effect works. Belief has the power to heal and uplift, but it likewise has the power to drown and destroy. So really, you can’t afford to walk into the day with anything other than a positive outlook. Your literal health depends on it.

Politics take place in government circles, but happiness… that starts here. With you. With me. With the choices we make daily.

And stuff like that? Hope and love and joy and peace… it’s contagious. That is what is going to change the world. Not a couple of guys sitting at a desk in their big, white house.

We have ascribed too much worth to outward circumstances. We have given too much power to politicians. It is time to take back our lives. To reshape our expectations and the disillusionment that comes with them. It’s time to extend a little grace—we’re all only human after all. It’s time to choose to be happy, despite the media telling us that we should despair.

At this point, there is nothing you can do about the election. You did your part, but now it is out of your hands. You can, however, elect for love to reign over hatred in your heart.

I know I want to live in a world where love wins. I hope you’ll choose to create that world with me.

It’s Raining Gumballs, Hallelujah

My friend asked me if I had ever read anything by Jen Hatmaker the day before her book, Interrupted, arrived on my doorstep.

Coincidence? I think not!

Anyway, I had only made it halfway through Chapter One when I was slapped in the face with this glorious piece of honesty:

“I am still stunned by my capacity to spin Scripture, see what I wanted, ignore what I didn’t, and use the Word to defend my life rather than define it.”

So much conviction packed into that one sentence. We humans are astounding in our treachery, no? We read the Bible with our blinders on, seeing only what we are looking to find instead of opening our hearts to what God might want to say to us.

It reminds me of the movie Bedtime Stories, where the stories Adam Sandler tells his niece and nephew become his reality for the following day. After surviving a hailstorm of gumballs, Uncle Skeeter gets a bright idea: He is going to tell stories that have the potential to make his life considerably better.

But there’s a twist Skeeter hasn’t caught onto despite the raining gumballs. Only the details the children add to the story come true. And the kids unknowingly create some pretty interesting scenarios for their poor Uncle Skeeter.

I never thought I would find myself saying I relate with Adam Sandler, but in this case, I do. Here I am, weaving a story for myself, trying to spin life to my own favor, when God shakes things up with a few added details. Next thing I know, I’m just going about my day, trying to catch a break… when suddenly I get kicked by an angry dwarf.

Oh, come on, God! Are you serious? What was that?

The irony of Bedtime Stories is that the kids ultimately create an even better ending than Skeeter had in mind for himself. I guess I can only trust that God has a better ending for me than the one I would create with my two, flawed hands.

Because I’ve searched the Bible regarding certain situations before, looking for loopholes and hoping to spin the Word in my favor. (The Bible can be pretty vague at times.)

Then I realized I was doing exactly what Jen Hatmaker explained in Interrupted.

I was using the Word to defend my life rather than define it.

But God was still winning because, try as I may to write my own ending, God had other plans. Better plans. And I never had as much control as I let myself believe I did.

Yes, I’ve been spinning my stories, but only the details God approved came to pass. And those details have made for some pretty interesting adventures.

I wouldn’t trade this journey for the life I thought I wanted. I have been wrong too many times about the things I thought would bring me joy. No, sir, God is doing just fine as director of this little mess called life.

So instead of trying to defend the story I’ve crafted in my own imagination, I’m going to let my life be redefined by the Master Storyteller—the One who believes in magical things like raining gumballs.

gumballs

Exactly Where You Want Me

The other night at Bible study, someone got brave enough to confess she was “just done.” She was frustrated beyond the point of inviting God into her daily life and hadn’t read her Bible in months.

She shared that with us. In Bible study. And I thought back to the many Wednesday nights I’ve sat quietly in my chair while feeling much the same way.

Rebekah, Rebekah, let down your hair…

So I’m sitting there beside her, feeling my heart completely break. Like, I just wanted to wrap this girl up in my arms and say, “I know exactly what you’re feeling. I was there not so long ago, myself.”

Then I started thinking about what it took to work myself out of that funk, because obviously if I know the way out, I want to share it with her. I don’t think I realized exactly how it happened until I wracked my brain trying to find answers last night. And I hope to God He has an easier way out for my friend.

Last fall, I was struggling pretty hard. The way life was meant to look in my head and the way it was panning out in reality didn’t exactly match up. I was in transition, and if you asked me, the transition was lasting way too long. I needed guidance, I needed direction, and, mostly, I needed the assurance that the place God had brought me to wasn’t the place He had intended for me all along. Because I was scared to death God had me exactly where He wanted me and I would just have to suck it up and get on with life according to His plan.

Then there was The Guy.

I reconnected with an old friend and we started tossing around the idea of a lifetime together. Suddenly everything made sense. Suddenly my discontent fell away and this transition became bearable. I could stick it out for another year if I had forever to look forward to.

“Forever” lasted about three months. That’s how long it took me to wake up from my fantasies and realize this guy wasn’t actually the best thing for me (and I probably wasn’t the best thing for him). It didn’t make sense at first. When I walked away from this relationship with absolutely nothing, I didn’t understand what God was doing.

You see, my first relationship wrecked me. Instantly and completely. Beautifully and poetically. There’s the Rebekah from before her first date and the Rebekah from after she said goodbye for the last time, and the two are pretty incomparable. (To the friend who told me “None of this will matter in a year or two” …you were wrong, and I am thankful.)

So of course I assumed that this more recent relationship wasn’t meant for me at all. Maybe God had something He needed to do in my boyfriend’s life, and I was just the vessel He chose. Because, yes, sometimes I am that narrow-minded.

But because of the honesty that greeted me the other night, I’m seeing that once again, the Rebekah I was before the first date and the Rebekah I am now that all the ties have been severed are not the same. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as the first time. Maybe it didn’t grow me in grace and redefine my worldview to the same extent the other did, but it was just enough to pull me out of that prison I had built using misplaced expectations.

God had to give me everything I thought I wanted so He could show me just how wrong I had been.

And it was hard at first. I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to put my feet because the path upon which I had been walking had been ripped out from under me. I was treading water, unable to discern up from down. And then finally, finally, there was the calm.

I stopped being scared God had me exactly where He wanted me, and simply accepted that, yes, this is His plan for my present. When I finally stopped refusing to see that God had a purpose for me in this space, I was able to catch a glimpse of what that purpose might be.

And for the first time since I moved home last summer, I can say I’m truly happy here.

While I want an easier path for my friend, I’m willing to pray for whatever it takes. Because, though the journey may be hard, it is nothing compared to the emptiness of trying to make it on your own. And I have a feeling she, like me, is going to have to do it the hard way. Because she knows all the Sunday School answers, but when the heart has wandered, answers are never enough.

Sometimes we silly sheep have to wander off into the woods because it’s not enough to hear the Shepherd’s voice echoing through the valley. We want to be found. We want to be lifted. We want to be cradled in His arms and carried out of the dark so we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yes, this is exactly where He wanted us all along.

Swallowing Grace

I close Sunday nights at work. My managers think I’m a great closer because I leave the place spotless, but I hate closing. Not because of the mopping and the scrubbing and the dozen little things that always need done, but because it puts me in charge of my fellow co-workers for the night. No one leaves without my stamp of approval saying they did all they were supposed to do before they left.

This might not be a problem, except I’m somewhat of a doormat. I hate making waves. I don’t want to be that jerk who says, “Hey, I don’t think you did this well enough. Clean it again.”

For the most part, I’ve worked with a really great staff who will go the extra mile for me, but things have changed up in recent weeks, and last night… Well, last night, I had the ultimate test on my doormat character.

When my dear co-worker who will go unnamed in this post asked me to check her stuff, I was confused to find that she had only been assigned one task when everyone else had been assigned two, especially since I was the one assigning the tasks. But when I checked my list and looked at the job I had intended to give her, I was surprised to find my own name written there.

Now, I’m not one to assume bad things of people, so my first thought was, “Did I accidentally fill in my own name?” But no, that wasn’t my handwriting. When you looked at the rest of the list that I clearly wrote, it was obvious to see someone had erased this girl’s name and written mine in her place.

It was late. I was tired and confused and still naive enough not to assume the culprit was standing right next to me.

Then she made a fatal mistake. She saw the parmesan cheese shaker in my hand and asked if she needed to refill it and put it away.

My gaze snapped from the list to her face. “You wrapped the parm and pepper shakers?”

“Yeah.”

I looked at the list, then back to her, waiting for her to realize that she had just implicated herself in a crime. But judging by the fact that she wrote my name on a list where my name was never supposed to appear, I’m going to assume she wasn’t quite clever enough to realize she had “accidentally” done half of “my” task. Which wouldn’t make sense unless she knew the job was meant to be hers in the first place.

So there I am, waiting for her to stop lying to my face, when she asks, “So, am I good?”

And because I actually somewhat enjoy folding pizza boxes, I simply said, “Yeah, you’re good,” and scribbled my name on her cashout.

Minutes later, I was standing in the expo line with a stack of thirty pizza boxes, which caused quite a stir among my remaining co-workers, who knew the closer wasn’t responsible for tasks such as these.

“Did you give yourself that out?” one of them asked.

“No, but someone did.”

It wasn’t difficult for them to figure out what had happened, and that’s when the suggestions began.

“You shouldn’t just give her pizza boxes next week; you should give her something hard, like tea brewers.”

“Just give her an extra out. That’s what I would do.”

And I have to say all of their suggestions sounded really good. I could passive-aggressively make her Sunday nights miserable for as long as she works them. It’s really tempting to want to make her Sunday nights miserable, at least for a week or two.

But then I was driving home and God started stirring things up inside of me. He started talking about being a light in this world and reminded me of the passage in John 8 where Jesus extends grace to the woman caught in the act of adultery.

And that is when I knew for certain that, while revenge is sweet, grace is a bitter pill to swallow. Even in accepting it, your pride will be stung, but extending it to those who are unworthy… The best analogy I can come up with in this moment is that it’s like chugging a bottle of buffalo sauce, and that only makes sense if you know how the very smell of it nauseates me.

But it fits. When my stomach starts to swim at the thought of being the giver of grace in this situation, it’s about the only thing that fits.

I’m having a hard time imagining looking this co-worker in the eye and saying, “I know what you did with the outs list last week, and I forgive you. What do you say we start fresh?”

On the other hand, I can’t imagine it going any other way. God’s voice is loud in the hearts of those who have turned themselves over to Him.

So, I don’t know how this is going to turn out. Maybe I’ll say nothing and continue on with life as normal. Maybe I’ll keep the pencil poised over pizza boxes (and tea brewers and oh have fun with the soda machine) longer than I should. Or maybe I’ll finally find courage enough to open my mouth and speak the words that need to be said.